In explaining why Malaysia needed to suspend democracy for the first time in half a century to fight the pandemic, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin assured the nation he wasn’t staging a military coup.

But his opponents found it hard to view the first nationwide emergency since 1969 as anything but a power grab. While the Southeast Asian nation has seen a surge of coronavirus cases in recent weeks along with many other countries, measures to combat the pandemic have generally enjoyed broad support across the political spectrum.

“Do not hide behind Covid-19 and burden the people with a declaration of emergency for the sake of saving yourself,” Pakatan Harapan, the main opposition bloc in parliament, said in a statement after the announcement.

The only problem easily solved by the emergency was Muhyiddin’s political trouble: Some key leaders in the ruling coalition’s largest partner, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), had recently called for a fresh election as soon as possible. Now, with parliament suspended potentially until August, the prime minister doesn’t have to worry about an election anytime soon.

While the move brings stability to Malaysia for the first time since political infighting early last year brought down a coalition government and hoisted Muhyiddin to power, it also poses a risk to the country’s democracy. Prior to the last election in 2018, the same ruling coalition had ruled for roughly six decades -- often with heavy-handed tactics that sought to silence the media and opposition politicians.

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Malaysia last saw a nationwide emergency in 1969, when racial riots between the ethnic Malays and Chinese led to the suspension of parliament for two years. The emergency now is “totally unnecessary” as the criteria for imposing one hasn’t been met and “no sane MPs” from either party would block moves to end the pandemic, according to Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

“If you’re not careful, we will slip from parliamentary democracy into a rule by diktat,” he said. “It’s addictive -- future governments would once again invoke a state of emergency.”

Investors were cautious after the announcement, with the ringgit and the country’s main stocks index declining on Tuesday (Jan 12). A lockdown announced on Monday (Jan 11) prompted Fitch Solutions to cut Malaysia’s 2021 economic growth forecast to 10% from 11.5% earlier while warning that restrictions could last for months.

For the 73-year-old Muhyiddin, a former UMNO stalwart who has gambled by switching allegiances over his four-decade political career, it will be a welcome chance to consolidate power. Since becoming prime minister in March 2020, he has faced constant pressure from both within his 12-party coalition and an opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim, who has repeatedly claimed to have the numbers to form a new government.

In October, Malaysia’s king rebuffed his push to declare an emergency that would’ve allowed him to avoid a budget vote in parliament that doubled as a confidence test. But he narrowly survived, and the recent spike in virus cases -- reaching a record 3,309 on Tuesday -- allowed him to convince the king to grant emergency powers this time around.

“This period of emergency will give us much needed calm and stability,” Muhyiddin said in a televised address to the nation on Tuesday (Jan 12). He added that the decree “is not a military coup and curfew will not be enforced.”


Following the emergency, one UMNO lawmaker became the second in recent days from the group to declare that he was withdrawing support for Muhyiddin. The party as a whole was more reserved, with President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi saying the prime minister should only use his emergency powers on measures that contain the pandemic and restore parliamentary practices as soon as possible.

“Muhiyiddin Yassin is now safe,” said Awang Azman Awang Pawi from the University of Malaya. “When the state of emergency was declared, UMNO was checkmated because nothing significant is able to be done during a state of emergency.”

Muhyiddin has been vague on how he’ll use his new powers. On Tuesday, he warned of possible price controls, greater control over public hospitals and a role for the military and police in implementing public health measures. He also vowed to hold an election once an independent committee declared that the pandemic had subsided and it was safe for voters to head to the polls.

Whether Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party will see gains in the next election now largely depends on how he handles the virus over the period of emergency rule. So far, he has failed to find solutions to stop the surge in cases -- an outcome that ironically laid the groundwork for him to implement the emergency and keep his opponents at bay.

“Without a strategy to address Covid-19, they are using these levers of power to hold on,” said Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate at the Asia Research Institute, University of Nottingham Malaysia. “It’s a reflection of the instability and ultimately it will make the cleavages and divisions in a highly polarized society worse.”